BOSTON – When it was over, the Miami Heat‘s best player was back in the locker room, icing his right knee. Their other top scorer had his quad wrapped and was watching from the bench.
The Celtics had not one but two stars flopping like fish on the court with injuries, either carried off or helped to the locker room, only for both to come trotting triumphantly out of the tunnel to ear-splitting ovations from the home crowd.
Three Miami players had four steals each. The Celtics’ biggest stars committed 13 turnovers among them.
And finally, a 26-point lead was whittled to one, with not much time left and the Boston faithful shaking the building with their hopes and cheers, when an undrafted, former Celtics Summer Leaguer hit the biggest shot of his life to beat them.
No, the Heat’s 109-103 win over Boston in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals was not a one- or two- or three-point game. But the 3-pointer Max Strus buried from 26 feet away with 2:16 left won the game – or prevented a devastating collapse.
In the timeout, Kyle (Lowry) said: ‘Let’s run a pin-down for Max. Let’s get him open, ‘”said Strus, who scored 16 points. “So when he said that, I had all the confidence in the world to step up and make a shot. Just shot my normal shot. I got two great screens from Bam (Adebayo) and PJ (Tucker) and hit a wide-open jumper. Obviously, it was a big shot and big momentum killer for them. ”
In any series, each team gets seven chances to win four. The Heat now have two wins to the Celtics’ one, but already both teams have won on each other’s home court. The bumps and bruises are piling up on both sides, and what can surely be said is that these teams have traded seizures of pivotal moments. The first close game of the Eastern Conference finals went to the Heat, and this is shaping up to be a long series.
In Game 2, the Celtics capitalized on the emotional boost of getting Smart and Horford back and suffocated Miami with a barrage of 3s.
With the sheer force with which the Heat opened Game 3, the massive lead building (21 in the first quarter, 26 in the second) and the performance of his playoff life from Adebayo, it would have been crushing for the Heat to lose this one .
Adebayo was averaging eight points per game in the series. He was a non-factor in Game 2 and had fallen to the periphery of the Heat’s offense. Not only did Adebayo erupt for a playoff career-high 31 points, but the 22 shots he took in Game 3 were the most he had taken in any NBA game, ever.
“I just want to win. I do not give a damn how many shots he takes, ”Lowry said.
Speaking of, Lowry returned after missing the previous four games with a lingering hamstring strain. And he looked good.
The Celtics should not have been in a position to win this game, but Butler’s knee was bothering him again – to the point that the trainers kept him out of the second half. Tyler Herro usually does the scoring for Miami when Butler does not play, but his quad was wrapped after he came off the court early in the fourth quarter, and he did not return.
Butler scored 70 points in the first two games of the series. The Celtics are so good defensively (as top-ranked defenses in the NBA typically are) that they can junk your whole offense. Buckets must come in those situations from the stars who can create their shots. That’s Butler, but he was not out there.
The other Heat player who can do that is Herro, but he was having trouble getting past defenders, and when his night ended prematurely, he had shot 4 of 15.
Brown ignited for 15 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter. The Celtics bombed five 3s. Grant Williams got going. The Heat could not buy a shot. That’s where things were when Brown splashed a 3 with 2:40 left to make it 93-92, Heat.
The scene inside TD Garden is proof that whoever says “it was a playoff atmosphere!” of a regular-season game does not know what they’m talking about. Boston’s arena is one of the loudest in the league, and not phony loud like in Philadelphia, where the sound the game-ops folks pump through the speakers drowns out the crowd and challenges one’s equilibrium. Celtics fans yell from their bellies. They strain their vocal cords and point and shout obscenities when their team scores to cut a 20-point deficit to 18. The building shakes as the lead goes under 10, and it gets so loud during a timeout that opposing coaches grow frustrated trying to talk to their teams in the huddle.
That’s what a playoff game is.
After Brown’s 3, there was not a person wearing green who did not think another Celtics bomb was coming. And it did, from a former Boston player who was cut by the Celtics just before the start of the 2019 season.
“He’s fearless,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Strus. “So even in a moment like that, he thinks the whole play is being run for him. You appreciate that kind of confidence. ”
Any game in which Butler is not available is going to be difficult for Miami to win. His injured knee is so serious that he had to be held out of the second half of a playoff game, but Spoelstra said Butler would not need another MRI on the knee that cost him a game in the first round.
“He did not have his, like, normal explosive burst,” Spoelstra said. “He’s been able to manage this. I think the next two days will be really important. ”
Butler finished with eight points on 3-of-8 shooting.
“At halftime, the trainers made the call,” Spoelstra said. “Just feel like we’ve been in this situation a lot with a few of our guys. We almost have to restrain them. We get it, and we love it about them, how they are wired. But we also do not want to be irresponsible. “
Lowry looked better than he did when he tried to play through his hamstring injury against the Sixers. Beyond his 11 points and four assists, Lowry’s presence distracted Smart from disrupting the Heat’s offense while Butler was on the floor. Lowry pushes the pace and is thick enough to body up Smart, one of the biggest, most physical point guards in the NBA.
But Lowry does not sound like he’s healthy, and Spoelstra did not have any information on Herro.
“I’m out here playing,” Lowry said. “And going forward, we are going to continue to have open dialogue, open communication and just continue to find ways to help me be on the floor.”
With Lowry back, Spoelstra shook up the Heat’s rotation. Gabe Vincent went back to the bench as Lowry’s backup, but Duncan Robinson saw second-quarter minutes instead of Victor Oladipo. Spoelstra said things have to be different, that lineup combinations change when Lowry plays.
But when Butler was hurt, Oladipo started in his place and collected four steals. On one of them, he collided with Tatum in the fourth quarter, causing Tatum to crash to the court, holding his right shoulder and writhing in pain.
Injuries. Brown lurking. (And who are we kidding? Tatum, too. All it takes is for him to see the ball go in – once.) Hostile environment.
Miami’s Game 3 victory was delivered in no small part by a 26-year-old who started his college career in Division II, was not a starter and did not have any playoff experience until now.
Strus’ shot wasn’t the Heat’s last basket. Just the one they could not have lived without.
“We have guys that wear all their emotions on their sleeves,” Spoelstra said. “We have great competitors, so that’s going to bring out everything, especially when you’re playing against a great basketball team. It’s going to bring out the best in you, hopefully. It’s going to bring out the anger in you sometimes. It’s going to bring out frustration. It’s going to bring out disappointment, and it’s going to bring out everything in between.
“But you have to stay present and try to win the next possession, and that’s going to be the case throughout this series.”
(Photo of Max Strus: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)